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Texas judge weighs 'difficult' Planned Parenthood case

By Corrie MacLaggan

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Lawyers for Planned Parenthood told a federal judge on Thursday that the healthcare of 40,000 women would be disrupted as soon as May 1 unless he blocks a new Texas rule that excludes the family planning organization's clinics from a state program.

But lawyers for the state said Planned Parenthood's mission was contrary to a Texas Women's Health Program goal of reducing abortions. The program provides cancer screenings, birth control and other health services to more than 100,000 low-income women.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel did not rule on Planned Parenthood's request but said he planned to do so by April 30.

"I find this to be a difficult case," he said after lawyers for both sides made their arguments.

The program in question does not pay for abortions, and the new rule bans program money from going to affiliates of abortion providers. State law has included that ban since the program began in 2007, but the state did not enforce it.

But Texas notified the federal government last year of its intent to begin enforcing the ban, effectively excluding Planned Parenthood from the program. Starting in May, providers that do not comply with the new rule will be removed from the program, state health officials have said.

What changed, Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell said, is that current state health officials are committed to enforcing the law, while past officials "unlawfully ignored" it.

Mitchell told the judge the program sought to reduce abortions by subsidizing family planning strategies that do not promote abortion. Women in the program can still go to Planned Parenthood, and it would be up to the clinic whether to serve them through another funding source, he said.

But some of those clinics may not be around, said Helene Krasnoff, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, which she said advocated for access to abortions but did not promote them. The eight clinics suing the state stand to lose a total of $13 million a year, she said.

The judge asked, "Is there not some other entity that will step in and pick up the slack?"

Krasnoff said finding another provider would be difficult for the women because Planned Parenthood had provided services to more than 40 percent of the enrollees. Even if they find another provider, their care will be disrupted, she said.

Obama administration officials have said they will not renew funding for the Texas program because the state was violating federal law by restricting the freedom to choose providers.

The state is suing over that decision, and Governor Rick Perry has said Texas will continue the program with or without federal funding. The federal government pays 90 percent of the $33 million yearly program, which is part of Medicaid, a federal healthcare program for the poor and handicapped.

Texas sent a plan this week to the federal government proposing that the program move to a fully state-run operation by November 1.

(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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